From Mallu Singh to Malar Miss: How Malayalam cinema has depicted non-Malayalis

What does it mean to depict a ‘non-native’ character on screen, as part of a fictional film?

It must be a character that is written keeping in mind the nuances of the region he/she comes from; ideally played by actors who hail from said region; holding their own space in the narrative, and not forcefully squeezed into a buttonhole in the script.

It’s an easy brief to begin with, but how has Malayalam cinema fared over time in the depiction of non-Malayalis on screen?

How they worked better as comical caricatures

In the Rafi Mecartin written and directed 1998 comic caper, Punjabi House, which has quite an ensemble, every single detail sketched about an immigrant Punjabi family is bluntly caricaturish. From casting quintessentially Malayali actors to play the part of Maninder Singh, Man Singh and Sikander Singh to mixing every Punjabi school textbook motif into their bearing, food and culture, even someone who has never been to that part of the world will guffaw at the stereotypes.

There is Janardhanan as the elderly uncle, Maninder Singh, who dotes on his nephew Sikander Singh (Lal) and you know that even at gunpoint, he can’t recite even one of the 35 letters of the Punjabi alphabet.

The “Punjabis” in the film own huge mud tandoor ovens and apparently only cook rotis. They also indulge in regular boxing matches, have a dance for every occasion and their women rarely get out of their ghunghat. But it’s also true that Punjabi House remains one of the most iconic comedy films of the time, so the irony is in the fact that it’s these very caricatures, mimicries and sly word plays (“char-chey-chor”) that really worked in the film’s favour. Perhaps any attempt to keep it real and authentic wouldn’t have raised as many laughs.

Pandippada (2005), by the same team (Rafi Mecartin) follows a similar narrative, where they have a loud and caricaturish Prakash Raj (it helps that he is a familiar presence in Tamil cinema) playing Pandi Durai, a landlord of a village in Tamil Nadu. He is brash, cruel, dim-witted and has a fascination for the English language that predictably results in hilarious situations. It’s again the same old stereotypes running overtime—Tamil landlords being uneducated, greedy womanisers. But here, again, that’s what saves an otherwise ordinary screenplay.

The scenario is repeated in Chattambinadu (2009), directed by Shafi (who is also coincidentally the younger brother of Rafi), written by Benny P Nayarambalam. Here Mammootty plays a loud and flamboyant Kannada landlord and small-town don, Virendra Mallaya, who speaks in broken Malayalam, punctuated by a heavy North Kannada slang. Mammootty’s hilarious turn with the language is what spruces up a cliched narrative.

None of it worked in the Vysakh directed Mallu Singh (2012), written by Sethu. A Malayali boy decides to voluntarily adopt himself into a Punjabi family as their son after he accidentally kills their son. He is baptised as Hari Singh (Unni Mukundan who limits his acting to glaring consistently) and becomes a strict brother (of five sisters) and dutiful son to them. With blaring Bhangra beats in the backdrop of lush paddy fields, colourful salwar-kameez costumed heroines, a turbaned hero and a few hilarious side characters, Mallu Singh gets reduced to a tacky comedy costume drama as the writing gets neither the essence of the milieu nor the hilarious incongruity of the situation.

Sathyan Anthikad is also one director who places non-Malayalis in his narrative, quite effectively, rarely offensively, if you discount Jagathy Sreekumar’s cameo as the womanising Vetrivel Sundara Pandian. Urvashi’s Anandavally in Mazhavilkavadi (1989), the Tamilian village woman, who is madly in love with her father’s new assistant is endearing. It goes without saying that her nuanced performance takes away what possibly might have been a stereotype on paper.

In Jomonte Suvisheshangal (2017), Aishwarya Rajesh’s Vaidehi is a Tamilian, an accountant at a textile company in Thirippur when Dulquer Salmaan meets her. It’s a typical Sathyan Anthikad no-nonsense heroine, but because it is played by a Tamil actor, sticking to Tamil, there is a freshness to it. It’s the same Anthikad along with Sreenivasan who created a hilarious North Indian politician called Yashwant Sahai in the socio-political satire Sandesham (1991). What more? They had the audacity to give it to an actor like Innocent, and even allow him to get away with speaking terrible Hindi with that pronounced Malayali accent (“Ye Budhu ka aadmi”).

Sreenivasan redeemed himself two decades later with a more heart-warming representation of Bengalis in Anthikad’s Fahadh Faasil starrer, Njan Prakasan (2018). Not only is the Bengali community in Kerala drawn with sensitivity, revealing their living conditions but the film also shows how an average Malayali fares rather poorly in comparison to Bengalis regarding work ethics in Kerala. There is a lovely little scene which shows the Bengali labourers planting seeds in the background of their folk song.

How mixed relationships often resulted in intelligent offspring

Malayalam filmmakers and writers often assume that a north Indian father and Malayali mother or vice versa will result in smarter, liberal, more empowered offsprings, especially daughters. In the Joshiy directed Sainyam (1993), Priya Raman makes a stunning entry as Shradha Kaul, wooing the young airforce cadets and irking her senior officer all in good time. Soon, it’s revealed that the smartness is courtesy her Kashmiri father and Malayali mother.

In the Shaji Kailas directed Renji Panicker scripted The King (1995), the daring young assistant district collector Anura Mukherjee (Vani Vishwanath), owes her boldness to a union between a Bengali father and Malayali mother. While in the Anjali Menon directed Bangalore Days (2014) Meenakshi’s (Isha Talwar) casual approach towards relationships has apparently something to do with being a daughter of a north Indian father and Malayali mother.

Niharika (Ahaana Krishna), in this year’s Luca is also a child of inter-state unions (Bengali father, Malayalee mother), which is probably an excuse for her decision to move in with Luca (Tovino Thomas) very early into the relationship.

Tamil invasion—good and the bad

If Tamil cinema at some point tried to point out that a Malayali woman’s wardrobe has only set mundu and blouse and can also be amoral, Malayalam cinema bracketed Tamilians initially as “pandi” (a degrading term), people who can fit in either as a don’s henchman or someone who can only do menial jobs.

Perhaps the most memorable tribute to Tamilians from Malayalam cinema has to be the beauteous Nagavalli from Fazil’s cult classic Manichithrathazhu (1993). She is alluring, bold and maintains a mysterious exotic aura around her. That the character didn’t work as brilliantly in any other language remakes speaks a lot about the exquisiteness of the Tamil language as well. Note how Nagavalli’s threat to finish off Sankaran Thambi on Durgashtami day gets lost in translation when it was remade in Tamil, Telugu or Hindi, besides factors like shoddy making and acting.

Premam’s (2015) Malar Miss comes a close second. Easily one of the most fascinating heroines in Malayalam cinema, Malar (Sai Pallavi) is a Tamilian lecturer in a college here, who falls in love with a Malayali student (Nivin Pauly). Be it her characterisation, her conversations (a delightful blend of Tamil and broken Malayalam) with George, she remains Malayalam cinema’s favourite Tamil heroine. There is a relatability about her even amongst the youngsters in Kerala despite representing another state.

Mammootty’s Murugan in Kamal’s Karutha Pakshikal (2006) is a hat-tip to the Tamilian immigrants in Kerala who run mobile ironing clothes services. Though Mammootty’s nuanced performance is the highlight of the film, where he aces the Tamil accented Malayalam, the “Tamil lower caste” stereotype is evident as he is given a blackface make-up.

Ranjith’s Black (2004), has a similar immigrant character, played by Tamil actor Daniel Balaji, while Shreya Reddy essays the role of his wife and has more nuanced writing. It also addresses immigrant issues in the state.

In this year’s best film so far, Kumbalangi Nights, it’s a Tamil character who provides a crucial breakthrough in the narrative. Murugan aka Vijay, who also makes a living ironing clothes. Saji (Soubin Shahir), one of the lead characters, lives off his meagre savings and then when one day Murugan dies, trying to save Saji from killing himself, he offers Murugan’s wife a home, that eventually helps in bringing together their dysfunctional family. Again, two things help—the roles being played by Tamil actors and a very realistic sketch.

Rajasenan’s Meleparambil Aanveedu’s (1993) heroine (Shobana) is the daughter of a Tamil landlord who falls for Jayaram and gets married to him, only to end up disguising herself as a domestic worker of his house. Since her character sticks to Tamil and her roots, it’s a reasonable depiction. Though they do pull up a few stereotypes, like how she hangs a photo of her “Kadavul” MGR on the wall. Similarly, Sathyan Anthikad’s Narendran Makan Jayakantan Vaka (2001) has Tamil actor Parthiban playing a Tamilian and it works well.

Ranjith’s Puthan Panam (2017) has a Tamilian boy sharing space with Mammootty’s Shenoy who is from Mangaluru, though he speaks in a heavy Kasaragod accent! Lijo Jose Pellisery’s City of God (2011), with its hyperlink format, has a narrative that throws light on the Tamil immigrants living in Kochi. There is Indrajith’s Swarnavel who is in love with Parvathy’s Marathakam who has escaped from an abusive marriage. It helps that both actors effortlessly slip into their respective characters, without making them caricaturish.

The Tamilian cops have been imbued into our narrative quite often. Out of which Mayaanadhi’s (2017) police officer is one of the better written ones, falling in line and length with his Tamil backdrop, where the dialogues seem to have been written in Tamil for him. But in this year’s Lucifer, Mayilvahanam IPS is a typical mainstream cop depiction (though Tamil actor John Vijay effectively pulls it off), corrupt and lascivious, who fantasises about a serial actor and bends backwards for the system.

North India, Bihar and Bombay

In the early '90s when Mumbai used to be Bombay, Priyadarshan would make sure his heroes inevitably took the “Kalavandi to Bombay” to make it big. Both Aryan (1998) and Abhimanyu (1991) had Mohanlal taking the familiar route to reach the maximum city.

Priyadarshan would wisely use Hindi-speaking actors as villains though they were one-dimensional. Sibi Malayil’s His Highness Abdullah (1990) and Thampi Kannanthanam’s Indrajalam (1990) also opted for north Indian one-note growling villains.

In Lucifer, director Prithviraj himself plays Stephen Nedumpally’s confidante, Zayed Masood, a powerful mercenary from north India, who calls the former Bhaijaan which sounds hilarious as the audience knows it’s Prithviraj mimicking a Hindi character.

Arayannangalude Veedu (2000) has one of the most realistically done female characters based in north India. Lakshmy Gopalaswamy (her debut) plays Mammootty’s north Indian wife (today’s Chhattisgarh) and though her clothes are a tad dramatic, she gets most of the nuances right.

Lohitadas also convincgly shows their life in Bhilai, where though they are struggling to make ends meet, they live happily in a one-room house.

But two characters share credits for the best North Indian depiction in Malayalam cinema. First is Basil Joseph’s Godha (2017), a sports film, which has a female lead who plays a wrestler from Punjab. Full credit to the casting as they roped in a Punjabi actor like Wamiqa Gabbi to play the part. The template is fresh with no attempts to localise her character. She is simply that quintessential Punjabi girl who comes down to Kerala for wrestling matches and stays that way till the end.

The other one is Sachy directed Anarkali (2015), a love story that revolves around navy officer Shanthanu Varma (Prithviraj) and Nadira (Priya Gor). Nadira is 16, playful, stubborn and falls madly in love with Shanthanu. It’s the kind of character that works primarily for her ethnicity (she is the daughter of a Nawab based in Hyderabad) and so the casting (television actor Gor is a natural) and writing are spot on. Even Kabir Bedi and Sudev Nair (probably the only Malayali actor who works for such a role) are bang on as her father and brother respectively.

Neelima has worked in the newspaper industry for more than a decade. She now writes exclusively about Malayalam cinema, contributing to Fullpicture.in and The News Minute. She is known for her detailed and insightful features on misogyny and the lack of representation of women in Malayalam cinema.